The NASA mission leader responsible for the operations of the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012, Michael Watkins, is returning to his roots at The University of Texas at Austin as the next director of the Center for Space Research (CSR) at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Watkins has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for 22 years and currently oversees the JPL Science Division. In addition to planning and overseeing the Curiosity mission operations and managing its exploration on the Martian surface, Watkins has led various teams for many of NASA’s most high-profile missions, including the Cassini, Mars Odyssey and Deep Impact probes as well as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and the GRACE Follow-On mission. Watkins will continue his work on the GRACE and GRACE Follow-On missions through CSR, which has been a key player in these satellite projects.

mike watkins nasa portrait

Mike Watkins. Credit: NASA-JPL

Watkins, who earned his bachelor’s degree (1983) and doctorate (1990) in aerospace engineering from UT Austin, has worked with CSR in several capacities since the center was established in 1981.

As a national research leader, CSR’s mission is to conduct research in space geodesy, the Earth and its environment and exploration of the solar system. The center develops and uses remote sensing data that is important for understanding the climate, weather forecasting, agriculture, improving models of the Earth’s gravity field and environmental assessments.

“Michael’s experience contributing to CSR research as well as guiding NASA missions is a unique combination,” said Noel Clemens, chair of the Cockrell School’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. “He will help the center strengthen its foundation while expanding into new areas of space research. He has the expertise, demonstrated leadership skills and NASA connections to lead CSR to a bold new future.”

Watkins was selected after an international search for a new director, Clemens added.

Watkins will be the second director in CSR’s history. Aerospace engineering professor Byron L. Tapley has served as the director since CSR’s inception. Tapley established the center with the goal of monitoring the Earth through satellite imaging, establishing CSR as a primary resource for research and expertise in satellite data gathering. Tapley will continue to work on center research and will provide guidance to Watkins.

Watkins is a pioneer in the development and use of gravity data in science applications. He has also taught estimation, filtering theory, and system engineering at UT Austin and at Caltech.

Watkins said he is excited about returning to the university and looks forward to building on the strong foundation that Tapley developed to advance the field of Earth imaging science.

“There is so much potential at UT Austin. It’s the best place to further this kind of research,” Watkins said.

He will assume the role in July.